There may be clues in his cinema, which reveals a politically and socially conscious, and often prescient, vision of Bengal, India and humanity
The Spanish Flu ended in April 1920. Satyajit Ray, India’s most fêted filmmaker, was born a year later, on May 2, 1921. This year marks his birth centenary, as another pandemic ravages the world, its impact particularly harsh on India now more than anywhere else. A question that has arisen over the past year is how cinema will reflect this period. We have seen a few half-hearted efforts already, but the shadow of the pandemic will last far longer and we can expect cinema and its creators to rise to the challenge more substantially. In this context, it’s interesting to reflect on how Ray as a filmmaker might have responded to this scenario, 100 years later.
Ray’s cinema captured a mutating India while remaining culturally rooted in Bengal. His films spoke to the dreams, aspirations, struggles, angst, challenges, and corrosiveness of the Indian plurality while telling stories that in many cases had already been told in other forms — by Tagore, Premchand, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay, Narendranath Mitra, Premchand, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Mani Shankar Mukherjee and even his grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury. Add to this his literary work and original screenplays and we get a picture of India, starting with Ray storyboarding Pather Panchali as the country became a republic and ending with the moral destitution and weariness of Agantuk.
Photo: Marc Riboud/ satyajitray.org.
The neorealist aesthetics in Ray’s films depict characters in flux, complementing a country that was rapidly transforming in the wake of Independence. India’s multiculturalism, Hinduism’s deep-rooted caste system, and the volatile, still unformed State borders and a multilingual society created several fractures that made it clear that the culmination of 20th century’s fifth decade was more decolonisation than freedom. Ray turned towards material that spoke to him and people like him, the educated Bengali bourgeoisie. True to form, his films, most of them, featured Brahmin or privileged-caste leads who were either gaining a foothold in India’s new fabric or recalling a glorious past. In The Apu Trilogy, Ray captured the rural and urban disconnect, and the bildungsroman gave us a bird’s eye view of Apu’s journey from a Brahmin family below the poverty line, their lives touched by every catastrophe in the country but nonetheless finding hope on the horizon. Almost retroactively, his lyrical Jalsaghar with its mirror plays and wide-angle shots captured the withering away of a zamindar’s grandeur, of a man held captive by a music that symbolises his resonant past.
Two of Ray’s greatest works fell on either side of the Bengal Renaissance, which stands as the foundation of his and many other famous legacies of the region. In Charulata, Madhabi Mukherjee becomes the forgotten figure in an upper-class house where her husband Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee) is married to his voice, his newspaper, and the freedom movement, not only failing to register her presence but also the renaissance within her. While Madhabi Mukherjee’s Charulata is a still life enlivened by Soumitra Chatterjee’s Amal, Ray’s roving camera, more kinetic here than in his other films, captures this through the eyes and opera glasses of Charulata. A year before Charulata, Ray had already made Madhabi Mukherjee the newly independent woman in a newly decolonised India in Mahanagar. Arati’s discovery of the city, her cautious encroachment into the upmarket neighbourhoods of Kolkata, and how she negotiates her agency with the men and women she meets constitute the filmmaker’s most satisfying work.
These were the experiments of a filmmaker who was looking back to look within, operating in the domain of the brahminical Bengali bhadralok. Often, Ray’s characters refuse to leave Kolkata. If they do, it is for a respite from their jobs and a weariness that is brought down upon them by destabilising events unravelling around them. In 1969’s Aranyer Din Ratri, we meet snooty city men who take a few days off to drive into the forest. The well-to-do Ashim (Soumitra Chatterjee), Sanjay, an executive, Hari, a failed cricketer, and Shekhar, a jobless wastrel who is the life of the party, bribe their way into a forest department guest house. Through such characters, Ray illustrated the apathy of a generation, cushy city slackers unaware of the hinterland’s mushrooming issues. Simi Garewal, in blackface, plays a hypersexualised Santhal tribeswoman and Sharmila Tagore solidifies her position as the educated woman representative of the bhadralok, from Nayak to Aranyer Din Ratri to Seemabaddha.
A marked shift in realising this moral decay on screen is apparent from Aranyer Din Ratri to his Calcutta trilogy — Pratidwandi, Seemabaddha and Jana Aranya. In Pratidwandi, Dhritiman Chatterjee’s Siddhartha declares that he doesn’t want to leave Kolkata, no matter that he is unemployed, with his mind unable to find an ideological footing. The film coincided with the Naxalite movement that began in Bengal, with the caste system and land rights at its root.
Still from ‘Pratidwandi’.
It’s no coincidence that the trilogy charted the course of Indira Gandhi’s India as it inched towards Emergency, creating a swelling anger at the state. Ray’s films still focused on capturing the Bengali Brahmin’s, or more importantly, India’s ruling class’s frustration with itself and the country. The trilogy’s protagonists — Siddhartha in Pratidwandi, Shyamal (Barun Chanda) in Seemabaddha and Somnath (Pradip Mukherjee) in Jana Aranya — are all one and the same, crawling their way to a corrupt version of their former selves, unwilling to act, afraid to give up the existing privilege in their names — Mukherjees, Banerjees and Chatterjees.
In Pratidwandi, Siddhartha is at a hotel with a college friend, who reminds him of his more politically conscious college days and beseeches him to return to that path. Ray focuses on Siddhartha for an unusually long close-up, with the friend talking about protests, labour rights and factory strikes. (This is eerily reminiscent of Uttam Kumar’s Arindam Mukherjee in the Fellini-esque 1966 film Nayak, who has grown apart from his childhood friend and activist Biresh, who wants Arindam to use his popularity for political causes.) Siddhartha’s mind wanders, only to think to himself, why won’t this man shut up. The growing unemployment and discontent only bolster their decision to give up on principles, to put themselves ahead of everything. (Contrast this with Mrinal Sen’s own Calcutta trilogy film Padatik, in which Chatterjee plays an assured Naxalite hiding from the police.) The hypersexualised woman becomes a symbol of this decay in Ray’s films — Siddhartha’s sister and his suspicions about her relationship with her employer, or the nurse he meets in the film, and Somnath’s startling discovery about his friend’s sister at the end of Jana Aranya. The descent from Arati to Juthika, Somnath’s friend’s sister who works as a prostitute, embodies the sinister cynicism that grabbed hold of a filmmaker trying to mine his country for cinema as an anthropological record.
In 1977’s Shatranj Ke Khilari, made during and released just after the Emergency, Ray dials back to 1856 to show two uncaring lords in Lucknow — Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey) — who control a comfortable fiefdom, play chess all day, singing paeans to the game and how it rewards the intellect, ignoring their duties and families. The film reflected the events leading up to Indira Gandhi’s assault on democracy, even as people in power ignored the long-term effects of that chapter in India’s history, some of which are being felt to this day. Once again, we return to a Ray film with the question, ‘Did he warn us? Should we have introspected more?’ While Ray’s films can be accused of featuring brahminical hegemony, they also document an important pattern of disillusionment that gave way to a more malevolent form of hedonism and warned of the aftermath of wearing privilege and supremacist dogmatism as a badge.
Examining the subaltern
This is not to say that Ray did not venture into examining the country’s subaltern. In his most whimsical and inventive Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Goopy (Tapen Chatterjee) and Bagha (Rabi Ghosh) are individuals from the lower stratas of society who find company in shared misery (brought upon them by the Brahmins of their village), until they encounter a ghost who grants them three boons. The signature piece is a six-and-a-half-minute musical sequence that is now widely understood to signify that the caste system can only end in violence. (The film too ends with weapons being put down and better treatment of the kingdom’s subjects.) The heady 70s forced Ray to re-examine the political class so much that he returned to Goopy and Bagha with Hirak Rajar Deshe, where a dictator prone to brainwashing the citizens is brought down by the magical powers of the two originally underprivileged wanderers. The film is as relevant now as it was timely then, the year Indira Gandhi was re-elected.
Ray’s films became more confrontational and introspective from here on. For Doordarshan, he made Sadgati, almost as a retort to the criticism of his characters’ usual social standing. Om Puri and Smita Patil play Dalits, husband and wife, with a daughter about to be married. Dukhi (Puri) is dependent on the Brahmin priest (Mohan Agashe) to find an auspicious date, who takes advantage of Dukhi’s need to extract as much physical labour from him as possible. Dukhi’s family mirrors Apu’s, but here Ray course-corrects to reflect how the priest (the original occupation of Apu’s father) is the oppressor. A self-confessed rationalist, Ray took on religion as early as Devi in 1960, which ends with a plot point that was echoed in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s 2019 film Super Deluxe — blind faith in an imaginary deity to cure a sick child. In 1984, Ray returned to Tagore for Ghare Baire, for a critique of blind nationalism that does not consider the underclass while participating in activism that misrepresents their cause.
Ray, through his filmography, displayed a propensity to learn, unlearn and review the past. He unearthed contemporary themes from classics to tell stories that reflected their present, and his technical acumen was such that the films remain as fresh as when they arrived, with moments of brilliance continuing to be uncovered to this day. Didn’t we ask how Ray would have reacted to the pandemic? He did. He made Ganashatru in 1990, a chamber drama about a jaundice epidemic in Chandipur. That its cause is water contamination is suppressed by both the state and the local temple. Dr. Ashoke Gupta (Soumitra Chatterjee) becomes an enemy of the people. Cut to 2021, every dissenting voice is branded an enemy of the state. Hopefully, young filmmakers are taking notes.
The Chennai-based writer and film critic hosts a South Indian cinema podcast called The Other Banana.